The best books featuring young, precocious characters who have physical or mental anomalies

Who am I?

I’m a fiction writer and visual artist. My volunteer work with Amnesty International on a documentary photography project introduced me to 15 people from all over the world. During that time, I volunteered at a camp in Maine for kids who had life-threatening illnesses. I met a boy who had Progeria. Those two experiences fueled the writing of What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me. I’m interested in characters who don’t fit the traditional mold and have to carve their own paths. People who are born with life-threatening diseases, imperfections, handicaps, brilliance. I see a kind of bravery in these characters, and in all they have to do to overcome the odds.  

I wrote...

What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me

By Donna Gordon,

Book cover of What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me

What is my book about?

What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me explores the story of Lee, a vibrant thirteen-year-old boy who is facing premature death from Progeria (a premature aging disease); his caretaker Tomás, a survivor of Argentina’s Dirty War, who's searching for his missing wife, who was pregnant when they were both "disappeared;" and Lee's single mother, Cass, overwhelmed by love for her son and the demands of her work as a Broadway makeup artist. When a mix-up prevents Cass from taking Lee on his "final wish" trip to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to pursue his interest in the life of Ben Franklin, Tomás – who has discovered potential leads to his family in both cities – offers to accompany Lee on the trip. One flees memories of death and the other hurtles inevitably toward it. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why did I love this book?

This book features 15-year-old Christopher Boone of Swindon, England, who has Asperger’s and is considered to be an autistic savant. He has an incredible knowledge of math and factual information, and is unable to tell a lie. He struggles to understand the nuances of human emotion. He sets out to solve the mystery of a neighbor’s murdered dog, conjuring Sherlock Holmes along the way. While the novel is set up as a detective story, important questions about life, love, and human motives are brought to the surface. ''Usually people look at you when they're talking to you. I know that they're working out what I'm thinking, but I can't tell what they're thinking. It is like being in a room with a one-way mirror in a spy film,'' Christopher says. He suggests that metaphor is a form of lying, pointing out that very few people actually have skeletons in their closets or apples in their eyes.

I loved Christopher’s innocence and intelligence, his methodical and logical way of going about solving the mystery of who killed the dog. His questioning mind brings new wisdom into the story along the way. This book is written in a kind of straightforward language that has crossover potential to YA. In both his awkwardness and sophistication, Christopher is an unforgettable character. Reading this book taught me that it’s just important to think about what a character says, as much as he leaves out.

By Mark Haddon,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year

'Outstanding...a stunningly good read' Observer

'Mark Haddon's portrayal of an emotionally dissociated mind is a superb achievement... Wise and bleakly funny' Ian McEwan

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the…

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

By Jonathan Safran Foer,

Book cover of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Why did I love this book?

Oskar Shell is the 9-year-old narrator living in New York City at the time of 9/11. His father has just died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th,  2001. He describes his feeling of depression at the loss of his father “as wearing heavy boots.” Shortly afterwards, in his father's closet, Oskar finds a key in an envelope inside a vase that he accidentally broke; in the key shop, he finds the name Black and thinks this has something to do with the key. He sets out to contact every person in New York City with the last name of Black in the hope of finding the lock that belongs to the key his father left behind, creating a binder with mementos of his journey.

Though it’s not clear how he manages to be so independent at this young age, along the way Oskar encounters an array of characters, among them his 103-year-old neighbor, Mr. Black, a former war correspondent, and “the renter,” a mysterious character who lives with Oskar’s grandmother. Oskar’s shock at the loss of his father fuels the poignancy of his language and inquiry. He’s able to use language to express the inversions and inside-out emotions that accompany those feelings. The language is entertaining, musical, and startling: The novel begins with Oskar’s voice,  “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep…”

By Jonathan Safran Foer,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



From the critically acclaimed author of Here I Am, Everything is Illuminated and We are the Weather - a heartrending and unforgettable novel set in the aftermath of the 9/11

'Utterly engaging, hugely involving, tragic, funny and intensely moving... A heartbreaker' Spectator

'The most incredible fictional nine-year-old ever created... a funny, heart-rending portrayal of a child coping with disaster. It will have you biting back the tears' Glamour

'Pulsates with dazzling ideas' Times Literary Supplement

'It's a miracle... So impeccably imagined, so courageously executed, so everlastingly moving' Baltimore Sun…

Book cover of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Why did I love this book?

Trevor Conklin is a teenager in the advanced stages of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound.  His new caretaker, Ben Benjamin, has lost his family to an accident (the details of which we don’t learn until the end of the book) and is financially broke. He has taken a 28-hour course on caregiving at a local church and afterward is hired by Trevor’s single mother to dress, bathe, and do everything that Trevor can’t do for himself. At first, there’s a lot of friction between Ben and Trevor, but after a while they become close and begin to trust one another. Together, they go on a road trip from Washington state to Utah to visit Trevor’s dad, the two haven’t seen one another for years. Along the way, they pick up some hitchhikers and Trevor has an encounter with a young woman. Alongside the road trip, are several flashbacks to Ben’s earlier life with his wife and family.  His wife is trying to get him to sign divorce papers and he continues to evade her until the very end when we learn how he was responsible for his children’s death in a car accident. The two threads of the story run parallel—Trevor’s illness and ironic humor, and Ben’s refusal to let go of his ghosts and guilt. In the end of this novel, each reaches a kind of peace temporarily. 

By Jonathan Evison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (releasing June 24, 2016 as a Netflix Original Film titled The Fundamentals of Caring, starring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez), Jonathan Evison, author of the new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! and the New York Times bestseller West of Here, has crafted a novel of the heart, a story of unlikely heroes in a grand American landscape.

For Ben Benjamin, all has been lost--his wife, his family, his home, his livelihood. Hoping to find a new direction, he enrolls in a night class called The Fundamentals of Caregiving, where he will learn…

Motherless Brooklyn

By Jonathan Lethem,

Book cover of Motherless Brooklyn

Why did I love this book?

On the surface, this book reads like a detective novel. Lionel Essrog suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. An orphan raised in a boys’ home in Brooklyn, when the story opens, Lionel is in the employ of a small-time gangster, Frank Minna, who has hired Lionel and three other troubled boys to staff his quasi limo service/detective agency. When Minna is abducted during a stake-out in Manhattan and turns up stabbed to death in a dumpster, Lionel makes it his mission to find his killer. So much of the pleasure of reading this book comes from the plot twists and the inventions and reinventions of language. Lionel’s name sometimes comes out as “Larval Pushbug” or “Unreleiable Chessgrub” and his behavior includes compulsive reaching, tapping, grabbing, and kissing urges. For me, the story falters some towards the end, but the freshness of the language and unpredictability of Lionel’s character make it a very entertaining read. It’s another great story in which a character who appears destined to fail, winds up triumphant in the end.

By Jonathan Lethem,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Motherless Brooklyn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • A complusively readable riff on the classic detective novel from America's most inventive novelist.

"A half-satirical cross between a literary novel and a hard-boiled crime story narrated by an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome.... The dialogue crackles with caustic hilarity.... Unexpectedly moving." —The Boston Globe

Brooklyn's very own self-appointed Human Freakshow, Lionel Essrog is an orphan whose Tourettic impulses drive him to bark, count, and rip apart our language in startling and original ways. Together with three veterans of the St. Vincent's Home for Boys, he works for small-time mobster Frank Minna's limo…

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (translator),

Book cover of The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Why did I love this book?

Renée is the concierge in an elegant Paris hotel. Widowed and in her 50s, she calls herself “short, ugly and plump,” a working-class nobody. She takes refuge in aesthetics and ideas but refuses to let her knowledge show. Renée’s friend in the building is 12-year-old Paloma, beyond precocious, who feels so let down by the meaningless in the world that she plans to commit suicide. Both characters are philosophers of sorts.  “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it,” says Paloma. In the end, they rescue one another from despair and loneliness. The experience of the book that was so satisfying for me, is the exchange of ideas about life and happiness, which are expressed more as a kind of philosophical discourse rather than a traditionally plotted novel. The ideas, expressed so intelligently and poetically, kept me going.

By Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Elegance of the Hedgehog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid…

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